Dayton Seeks Special Session For Unemployed Miner Benefits

Gov. Mark Dayton wants Minnesota lawmakers to meet in a special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off miners.

The state projects that 596 miners will run out of regular unemployment payments before the Legislature is slated to return to work on March 8. The Democratic governor said he would like the special session by the end of this year or early in 2016.

Dayton opened his letter to legislative leaders with: “I want to make you aware of the financial crisis confronting Minnesota steelworkers, who are currently laid off in northeastern Minnesota.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, had no immediate reaction. A Bakk spokeswoman said Senate Democrats will meet Monday with a special session to be discussed.

Earlier this year, legislators extended by 13 weeks unemployment benefits for Minnesota’s turkey industry workers in light of bird flu that devastated flocks in many parts of the state. However, Dayton said, “fortunately, very few avian flu workers have needed those special benefits.”

However, many miners are expected to be off work at least six months.

Dayton’s letter said that two weeks ago, 1,413 workers were affected by Iron Range mine layoffs and had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. Most applications were filed from May through August, the governor wrote.

That figure has dropped to about 870 workers who still collect unemployment benefits, and almost 600 of them run out of benefits before the regular legislative session is set to begin.

Another 74 workers laid off from U.S. Steel probably will exhaust their benefits this month, the governor said.

Whenever Dayton has considered calling a special session, which only he can, he has demanded an agreement with legislative leaders about what will be taken up and passed. Once Dayton calls a session, lawmakers can debate and pass whatever they want.

A session like Dayton requests likely would last a day.

The Capitol building is closed for renovation, with only the House chambers to be open during the 2016 session. Senators plan to meet in a committee room in a Senate office building just being completed.

Dayton sent the letter Wednesday, but it was not released to the public. He has been away from his office for days to be with his ailing 97-year-old father, Bruce Dayton.

Minnesota’s taconite mines continue to struggle, with a glut of taconite part of a crushing depression in the U.S. steel and iron ore industries thanks to the influx of cheap, imported steel from places such as China. All of those imports have drastically cut demand for U.S.-made steel and its primary ingredient, taconite iron ore.

Hundreds of workers continue to be affected by shutdowns at several mining operations — U.S. Steel’s Keewatin Taconite, Cliffs Natural Resources’ United Taconite in Forbes, Mesabi Nugget near Aurora and the Mining Resources iron concentrate plant near Chisholm, as well as parts of Grand Rapids-based Magnetation’s operations.

There also were layoffs at U.S. Steel’s Minntac operations in Virginia over the summer, with most employees reportedly called back to work by September.

Forum News Service reporter Andrew Krueger contributed to this story.